We need fairness on schools, not choice

This year’s Labour Party conference was by all accounts a pretty flat affair. In its eighth year of government, the party even had to borrow passers-by to fill the hall for the leader’s speech. Ministers talked a lot about choice, community, responsibility and respect, a term that is currently drip fed into every leading politician’s utterance.

The fact is that this is a government beset by paradoxes. The New Labour project feels like it is running out of steam, yet Tony Blair is keen to press forward with his own agenda for change, particularly regarding the public services. An allegedly more radical leader waits in the wings to take over power, yet before he is handed the crown he must prove that he is not so radical after all.

But the biggest paradox is the clash of two grand concepts: community and personal choice. It’s a clash that one can discern within the prime minister himself, whose aspirant individualism its so uneasily with the collectivism and drive for social justice that underpins the party that he leads. And it is a clash now being fought out, covertly, between the prime minister and the prime minister in waiting.

But it is on the ground, in the delivery of health and education, that the government’s  initiatives and mantras are becoming so confusing and potentially divisive.

Education and the early years remains one of the key notes of New Labour reform. On the one hand, we have an agenda aimed at helping the poor and promoting stable communities: children’s services have been integrated, £680m has been earmarked over the next few years to promote extended schooling, and Sure Start is a cornerstone of government policy.

On the other hand, we have more emphasis on the politics of choice, on the right of  parents to choose the best school for their child. Later this autumn, the government will publish a white paper on education which is expected to accelerate the city academies programme, further extend the role of private providers in education and free some schools to select a percentage of their pupils.

Such reforms could be disastrous. By concentrating money on the few, not the many and allowing schools to select their own pupils, we will be on our way to a market free-for-all in the state sector with divisive effects on local communities.

Existing grammars, a burgeoning faith school sector, some specialist schools and the growth of academies are creating what education administrator Tim Brighouse has called “a dizzying hierarchy of provision”. Clearly if one school can cream off high performers then a neighbouring school will have more children with problems, and more problems to contend with.

If the government is serious about building strong communities it should stop talking so much about choice and start talking about fairness. It should begin seriously to modernise the comprehensive vision which has taken such a knocking. The priority is to set a fair, transparent   admissions system, affirm the link between schools and communities and tackle a prescriptive and often dull curriculum.

There are hints that the government is thinking of introducing banding for all schools which might be a step in the direction of fairness. And education secretary Ruth Kelly’s speech at conference was a valiant, if low key, attempt to inject some comprehensive principles into the debate.

The market can provide a few good schools for some, but not for the many. If  Blairite plans are implemented we will create a new multi-layered version of the old 11-plus. It will be clear to everyone which schools attract genuine esteem, which are deemed to be bog standard, and which are considered sink establishments.

It’s a far cry from the ideal of high quality public services, used by all; the sign, surely, of a truly civilised and democratic society.

Melissa Benn is a writer & broadcaster

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